Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
January 21st, 2017. Inauguration day. I stood in a crowd of thousands in a parking lot in St. Paul getting ready to march towards the capital, complete with our pink hats and all the energy of freshly ignited resistance. I had been invited to speak a blessing to the waiting crowd to help us kick-off the march. The organizers gave me benign poem to read and told me not to stoke the fires. But I went off script, with trembling hands. I’m all good with civil disobedience. But rule breaking on the interpersonal level doesn’t sit so well with me. Still, I read a version of Jesus’ first public sermon, a version of our scripture this morning, because I felt it in my bones:
Blessed are those who protest.
Blessed are the women, cis- and transgender.
Blessed are the poor and those who work too many jobs to make ends meet and those who cannot find a job.
Blessed are the refugees and immigrants, no matter their legal status.
Blessed are the uninsured and those who fear they will lose their insurance.
Blessed are those with preexisting conditions.
Blessed are those who weep and mourn.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are those who have survived sexual violence and abuse.
Blessed are those who speak their truth.
Blessed are those who seek our collective liberation.
Blessed are those who cry, “Black Lives Matter.”
Blessed are the indigenous and blessed are their sovereign, sacred lands.
Blessed is the Earth under the siege of climate change.
Blessed are those who are differently-abled.
Blessed are the sacred choices of women about their bodies.
Blessed are the babies and children.
Blessed are the aging and elders.
Blessed are those who are LGBTQ.
Blessed are those who are the Muslim and threatened with a registry.
Blessed are those who are Jewish and threatened with bombs.
Blessed are all those who are persecuted.
Blessed are those who act in solidarity.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are we, the people, who inaugurate our resistance this morning.
It was an experience I hope I will always remember. Over the sound of my shaking voice, I could hear the crowd of thousands cheer. And the adrenaline of a movement coursed through all of us who marched, in St. Paul and around the country and around the world.
All of these blessings are still true and just this week as we face a likely acquittal of an impeachment trial this week. And I could expand the list a hundred fold based on the last three years. My problem, though, is that I’m exhausted by continuing to make this list of blessings. I cannot spiritually keep extending this list without burning out. But the Beatitudes, as this sermon is called, is supposed to do the opposite spiritual work for us. It is supposed to remind us that we are each blessed, even though unjust laws and practices in our country keep trying to strip too many of us of our original blessings from God. These blessings are supposed to empower us to live as Jesus lived, as though God’s promises of justice and love and peace were already real in our lives and all around us.
This year, I’ve gone back to the original Beatitudes with new, if weary, eyes. While thousands of years and thousands of miles separate us from Jesus’ followers, we share some circumstances. Like them, we too live under the rule of attempted empire in which the game of power and thrones, we are told, depends on money, might and military. Like them I imagine, there is no more adrenaline rush of resistance. If anything, I imagine the disciples sharing my experience of something more like a spiritual hangover much of the time. That’s why as I try to listen to Jesus now, I’m looking for the fuel for a slow burn, slow-cooked activism that softens and sustains and solidifies me and all of us. It is essential, but yet not enough anymore to name who is blessed. We must remember, all of us, how to be blessed.
The original Greek of the Matthew’s Gospel translates the word ‘blessing’ roughly as ‘one receiving God’s grace or favor.’ This is not a passive stance. This is not just God reaching out to us, all of us. It is about actively receiving God’s grace. In these famous blessings of the Beatitudes, I have come to realize that Jesus is giving us a series of spiritual practices to help us receive God here and now.
Blessing # 1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Or, the spiritual practice of humility.
To be poor in spirit can also be translated as those who are humble. This isn’t about modesty, but right-sizing our egos. For example, as a type two on the Enneagram (an amazing psycho-spiritual tool of healing based on the teachings of the ancient mystics), when my ego is wrong-sized, I fall into the trap of pride. I think I can be all-loving, all-understanding, all-kindness all the time and pride myself on this perception of myself. But when I right-size that ego with humility, I recognize my own needs for rest, my own less than peachy feelings towards myself and others, and remember that I am only human and that is not a bad thing. In that remembering is the blessing, the receiving of God’s grace. Humility softens me so I remember I am soooo not supposed to try to be God, but to follow God. I receive a taste of the promises of God about the world to come in that moment.
What does humility, right-sizing your ego-self, look like?
Blessing #2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Or, the spiritual practice of grief.
When we make a way through the clutter of our busyness and the Midwestern white culture of stoicism that dominates here and the perceived inconvenience actually making time to feel all the stuff we don’t want to, we make an opening to receive God’s comfort. This is not just about the profound personal grief many of us carry around, but about the collective grief that haunts us about the difference between the world of God’s delight and the world we inhabit. Jesus is telling us that in order to receive God’s blessing of comfort, we must make room to mourn.
What do you need to room to mourn?
Blessing #3. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Or, the spiritual practice of fierce gentleness.
Let’s remember that Jesus is talking to people whose homelands have been conquered by Rome and who have just returned from exile. When he calls for meekness or gentleness, this isn’t about cooperation with occupation or military rebellion. It is but about “exercising God’s strength,” which is another translation of the same Greek word we know as meekness. I imagine Jesus here as calling for the kind of fierce gentleness and strength of somebody like Wangari Matthai. She was the Kenyan leader whose vision to reclaim the land destroyed by industrialism and colonialism in her country was to start a movement to plant trees – 51 Million, in fact, that would slowly re-enliven the earth and communities around them. This kind of fierce gentleness through which we all inherit the earth, not just those with the power to conquer.
What does your fierce gentleness, your God-like strength look like?
Blessings #4, 5 and 6. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account… for your reward is great in heaven. Or, the spiritual practice of seeking divine justice.
These three blessings are all about righteousness, which means Divine justice. This isn’t the kind of justice that just swaps who is in positions of power and who is not. This is about transformation beyond what we can imagine. Which means we cannot possibly know what we are doing or get it all right. Instead, the spiritual practice here is about seeking and longing for God’s justice even in the face of profound and painful opposition. Nurturing the very thirst and hunger, the seeking itself, is the opening to receive God. For me, that means finding the balance between experiencing the heartbreak of everyday life, and also the rest and refill that allow me to become curious again.
What nurtures your thirst and your seeking?
Blessing # 7: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Or, the spiritual practice of holding suffering together.
We don’t hear much about mercy these days, but many of us use the language of compassion. They are both translations of the Greek word used in our text. They both call us to suffer with those who are suffering. But this time of the internet and cell phone cameras and 24/7 news has made the suffering of our fellow humans, creatures and the earth more visible than ever before. Perhaps this is why we hear so much about compassion fatigue in our culture today. So let’s come back to Jesus for a minute. He was talking to a group of twelve disciples asking them to practice holding their suffering together. It’s not that all the other suffering in the world doesn’t matter. But we are called to practice on the small scale of community so that we can strengthen the muscles of compassion on wider scales. In this practice of holding suffering with and for each other and letting others also hold our suffering, we experience blessing.
With whom can you holding your suffering together?
Blessing #8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Or, the spiritual practice of centering.
When I hear the word “pure,” I have a little freak out internally. Anti-queer Christians have used that language in some pretty abusive ways. But what Jesus is talking about here is far from any kind of modern purity movement. The ancient thinking about the heart is not about a physical body part, but about the center of our whole beings where our spirits dwell. To practice purity of heart means to seek clarity of who we are at our spiritual center. There, we will find God.
How can you seek your center and the God who dwells there today?
Blessing #9: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Or, the spiritual practice of becoming whole.
This is Jesus invitation to become his spiritual sibling because he is the one we know as the Child of God. The only other person known as the Son of God at the time was the emperor of the Roman Empire. That was an official political title Jesus claimed as his own in a move of political savvy and profound spiritual snark, I would like to think. But also to make the point that he was building an equally powerful kingdom, just rooted in completely different vision and values. His was rooted in peacemaking, or a translation I like better, wholeness-making. To make peace, we must become whole individually and collectively. Imagine if we had a kingdom where wholeness was the highest value. What would our healthcare policies look like? And our policing and military practices? And our immigration policies? I don’t know. But I want to imagine…
What do you need to become more whole?
Beloveds, you are blessed, each and everyone of you. And in order to remember that, here are some spiritual practices for you. The point is not to do them all all the time, but notice if there is even one that resonates with you today for your individual and our collective learning:
the spiritual practice of humility.
the spiritual practice of grief.
the spiritual practice of fierce gentleness.
the spiritual practice of seeking divine justice.
the spiritual practice of holding suffering together.
the spiritual practice of centering.
the spiritual practice of becoming whole.
May we receive God and experience blessing each day so that we might live as the blessings the world so desperately needs.